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This Robot Submarine Inspects the Worst Pools Ever

I’ve been swimming in a lot of weird places. Some of them have even been a little dangerous. But I would never, ever, ever go swimming inside of the core of a nuclear reactor, operating or otherwise. Neither would anyone else in their right mind, but it is the job of human inspectors to go out on catwalks over reactor vessels and dip long poles with cameras attached into the water to inspect the vessel’s interior to make sure that nothing evil is leaking out.

This is not a particularly safe nor fun activity, but you know who doesn’t care about safety or funness? Robots.

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What Boston Dynamics Is Working on Next

It’s almost impossible to get information out of Boston Dynamics (especially after this happened). Infuriatingly (for us), the way the company does PR is to just upload awesome videos on YouTube, sit back, and let millions of people be amazed by their newest robotic innovation while we desperately try to get a post up that says something more relevant than “go watch this video right now.” We even showed up at Boston Dynamics ourselves once, and mostly all that we learned was that Marc Raibert is an enigmatic guy on a pogo stick.

Raibert, and other people from Boston Dynamics, do speak at conferences sometimes, but usually they don’t talk much about future projects, and they almost always ask that anything new (or any outtakes that they might show, which are unfailingly hilarious) isn’t recorded.

Earlier this month, at the FAB 11 Conference at MIT, Raibert gave a 7-minute presentation as part of a panel on “Making Robots,” which also included Sangbae KimRuss TedrakeRadhika NagpalMick Mountz, and Gil Pratt. Raibert’s presentation featured some video that we’d never seen before as well as tantalizing hints of what Boston Dynamics has been working on.

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Video Friday: Erica the Android, Autonomous Drifting, and Birds Don't Like Drones

Now that it’s solidly in the middle of August, it’s a perfect time to remind you of some of the robotics events coming up at the end of the summer. First, there’s RoboBusiness in San Jose, Calif., September 23 and 24, featuring high profile keynotes from IBM’s Rob High (CTO of the Watson program) as well as Google’s Ray Kurzweil. Immediately afterwards, you’ll want to hop on a plane to Germany, for IROS 2015, in Hamburg, Germany, followed by ROSCon right next door. And if that’s not enough robotics for you, well, you should probably get therapy.

To get your fix today, though, we have plenty of robot videos, none of which require international travel.

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Chinese ‘Unmanned Factory’ Replaces 600 Humans With 60 Robots

According to an article in the People’s Daily, the “official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party” (so emphasis on that “according to”), the Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan, a sprawling industrial city north of Shenzhen, has replaced some 600 human assembly line workers with 60 robots, resulting in a fivefold reduction in manufacturing errors and an increase in production of over 250 percent.

This is the first unmanned factory in Dongguan,” the article says, and the initial step of a comprehensive industrial automation plan for the region called the “Robot Replace Human” program.

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MIT Finally Does Some Useful Research With Beer Delivering Robots

I have this suspicion that if it weren’t for beer, robotics research would be years, perhaps decades, behind where it is now. This is because beer is the answer to the question that everyone always asks about researchers about their robots, which is: “That’s cool, but what does it do?” If you can somehow answer that question with, “It brings me beer,” people immediately understand the value and importance of your research (and by extension robotics in general), no matter what it actually is.

Having said that, getting robots to deliver beer does in fact involve a lot of complex issues, including navigation, perception, grasping, and human-robot interaction. And once you’ve solved all of those, you still have to get groups of robots working together if you’re trying to deliver beer to all of your friends at the same time, which you totally should be. At MIT, they’ve developed a new kind of multi-robot task planner that enables beer deliveries to consistently occur even under uncertainty, and that’s a thing that the world obviously, desperately needs. 

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Why Roboticists Should Join the Trillion-Dollar Driverless Race

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

There’s certainly a lot of questions about autonomous vehicles and how to regulate, insure, and make them safe as we start putting them on the street. But for me what is certain is that we’ll be able to sort through those issues, and a future of robotic cars cruising through our neighborhoods is ultimately inevitable. The fact is, removing the driver is as revolutionary today as removing the horse at the turn of the last century. The industrial revolution made affordable automobiles a reality. Now, technologies like cheap 3D sensing, ubiquitous connectivity, and novel AI algorithms will put self-driving cars on the road within the next decade.

To get to that future, however, I believe we’ll need an incredible amount of innovation—the kind of inventiveness and persistence we usually see in small, fast, nimble startups. These are the companies, I think, that will build the technologies needed for our future robot cars. So if you work in robotics and you’re not paying attention to autonomous vehicles, you’re ignoring a huge opportunity; in fact, you might be snubbing a trillion-dollar market.

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MIT Robot Steals Human Brains to Help It Balance

Based on every horror/sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen, squishing an actual fleshy human brain into a robot would make it unstoppable. And probably evil. Sooner or later, I’m sure someone is going try it for real. Until they do, what’s almost as good is letting a robot borrow an actual fleshy human brain to help it balance and complete tasks requiring sensing and dexterity. It’s like teleoperation, except the user’s brain and body are controlling the robot directly, from inside a haptic suit.

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Video Friday: Tesla’s Robot Tentacle, Subscale Aircraft, and Virtual Humans Getting Dressed

We spent most of this week arguing thinking about whether armed autonomous robots are a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t think we should ban killer robots, but lots of people think that it’s very clear that we should. There’s been an enormous debate in the comments of these articles, and on Twitter as well. Georgia Tech’s Ron Arkin weighed in this week, and we’ll have another expert perspective next week. We’re not expecting to reach a consensus here: there’s no easy (or even unambiguously correct) answer. What we’re trying to do, though, is to provide as many perspectives on the issue as possible to help you inform your own thinking. The ethics of robotics is something that we’re very interested in, and we’ll be returning to it in a variety of contexts over this year and next.

Still, that’s all some heavy, heavy stuff, you know? So let’s all just chill out with a bunch of robot videos.

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Children Beating Up Robot Inspires New Escape Maneuver System

A few years ago, the curious folks at the Radiolab show/podcast asked some kids to hold a Barbie doll, a live hamster, and a Furby robot upside down. Not surprisingly, the children were unfazed by the Barbie, holding it on its head for a long time. When it was the hamster’s turn, the kids were quick to release the squirming animal, for fear that they were hurting it (no surprise here either). The interesting part came when they held the Furby. The children said that, even though they knew it was just a toy, they worried that they were “hurting” the robot (which loudly protested being upside down), suggesting that they felt some empathy for the furry machine.

Now, a new study by a team of Japanese researchers shows that, in certain situations, children are actually horrible little brats may not be as empathetic towards robots as we’d previously thought, with gangs of unsupervised tykes repeatedly punching, kicking, and shaking a robot in a Japanese mall.

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Who Needs Real Friends When Robots Will Play Nintendo With You

For those of us who have no friends, we at least have video games. And thanks to artificial intelligence, the computer-controlled adversaries we play against are always getting better. Most games aren’t at the point where the AI can give a skilled human serious competition without having the playing field tilted in its direction, but that’s okay, because we still derive pleasure and satisfaction from beating them anyway.

What AI is missing is physical embodiment. You know, something that you can scream at when you lose and gloat over when you win. The little humanoid NAO fills that role nicely, and researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan have taught the robot to play Wii Tennis, with a Wiimote and all.

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IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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